It's never too late to be recognized as a "breakthrough performer," apparently. 15 years after making her first big-screen appearance in "A Time to Kill," 39 year-old actress Octavia Spencer -- the chief source of comic relief in the ensemble of "The Help" -- has been honored with the Breakthrough Performance Award at the Palm Springs festival.

Like most of the awards dished out at Palm Springs and Santa Barbara next month, this honor acts chiefly as an Oscar nomination forecast: previous winners of the prize include Felicity Huffman, Jennifer Hudson, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Renner and Carey Mulligan. (Hard luck, Mariah Carey and Freida Pinto.) Not that one needs  any such minor bellwethers to predict Spencer's nomination, which has been set in stone since "The Help" opened in August: the question is whether she can win in a field that still has no clear frontrunner.

Much, I suspect, depends on the momentum of co-star Viola Davis's lead campaign, not to mention the possibility of internal category competition from Jessica Chastain. (If the latter manages to score a nod at all, she could be a real threat for the win, pulling votes from fans of her work in multiple films.)

On the face of it, it sounds odd to attach the "breakthrough" tag to an actor with a career as long as Spencer's, but that's precisely what the performance is: trawling through her filmography, I'm surprised how many notable films she's appeared in where her face just doesn't come to mind. (Granted, I haven't seen the film in a while, but I doubt Woman In Elevator in "Being John Malkovich" was a plum part.) Clearly, larger roles in such smaller movies as "Herpes Boy" didn't do much for her either.

So good for her for turning things around with a role that, an interview with Anderson Cooper revealed, was once mooted for Oscar winners Jennifer Hudson and Mo'Nique. It was her longstanding friendship with writer-director Tate Taylor, Spencer admits, that secured her the part: given that he's a similarly out-of-nearly-nowhere name, one imagines he was more sympathetic than most to an actress in need of a break. 

Spencer joins Michelle Williams, George Clooney and Glenn Close on the list of Palm Springs honorees: the "My Week With Marilyn" star was previously announced as the recipient of the festival's Achievement Award. Every year since 2006, at least one of their picks has gone on to win the Oscar. Make of that what you will -- I wouldn't. 

 

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.

Sign up for Instant Alerts from In Contention!